Wu Yi-fang, Smith College, and Early Women’s Education in China
On May 20, 1943, the graduating class of Smith College filed into John M. Greene Hall to receive their Bachelor of Arts diplomas. Among the speakers and honored guests on stage that year was a small, bespectacled woman, in place to receive an honorary Doctor of Law degree from Smith. She was Dr. Wu Yi-fang, president of Ginling Women’s College in then-Nanking, China, and her journey to this commencement ceremony, however far from being her greatest accomplishment, was one assisted in part by Smith’s commitment to global women’s education.
One doesn’t hear much about Ginling College these days, and when the school opened its doors for the 1915 fall semester, its small numbers (six faculty and eleven students) spoke little to the history being made.[i] The brainchild of five Christian mission boards, Ginling opened eight years after the Chinese emperor Guangxu approved education for women, and members of its 1919 graduating class, which included Wu Yi-fang, would go on to become the first women in China to hold accredited Bachelor of Arts degrees.[ii] Smith became affiliated with Ginling in 1916, after two alumnae, Frederica Mead (’11) and Delia Leavens (’01) convinced the Smith College Association for Christian Work to adopt Ginling first as its overseas project, and in 1921, as its “Little Sister in China.”[iii] The SCACW initially donated $1000 yearly to Ginling (approx. $20,965 in today’s dollar), and increased this amount to $2500 in 1921, in addition to a heightened payout during the Second Sino-Japanese war and $50,000 for the construction of a Social and Athletic building in 1921-23.[iv] Smith women were encouraged to take an interest in Ginling, and this interest often manifested itself in teaching abroad at the college after graduation. By 1942, at least 15 Smith alumnae had taught at their sister school[v] for durations anywhere from a semester to thirty-four years (in the case of Ruth Miriam Chester), in subjects ranging from physical education to chemistry.[vi]
The college had originally been headed by Matilda Thurston, a graduate of Mount Holyoke College, but changing policies in the Chinese government called for a Chinese citizen to lead the institution, so Wu Yi-fang became Ginling’s president in 1928.[vii] Wu Yi-fang’s leadership saw Ginling through its most tumultuous period, most notably the Japanese invasion of Nanjing during the Second Sino-Japanese War in 1937. During this time Ginling’s students fled to West China University in Chengdu, and for the duration of the war their campus sheltered upwards of 10,000 Chinese women and children from the brutalities being committed by Japanese soldiers. Although Ginling students and faculty were displaced from their home campus until 1946,[viii] the school’s mission remained intact under the careful hand of Wu Yi-fang. Letters in the Smith College Archives suggest that Wu Yi-fang and Mrs. Elizabeth Morrow, then Acting President of Smith kept in communication through periods of both war and peace. In a December 1940 brochure to Smith alumna, President Morrow describes the tumult of the previous three years, but also includes a quote from Madame Chiang Kai-shek, praising the school’s accomplishments, saying, “The only trouble with Ginling is that instead of 150 undergraduates there should be 1,500.”[ix]
By the early 1950’s it became clear, however, that Smith’s support of Ginling was going to be difficult to continue. As stated in the October 6, 1950 Alumnae Quarterly, “[Ginling] is a Christian school running under an anti-religious government. It is American-supported under a government which denounces the United States.” [x] Smith College, frustrated both by Ginling’s government-forced absorption into the University of Nanjing and the continual difficulties produced by the government’s anti-American sentiments, cut off its support to the former Ginling College in 1954.[xi]
When he introduced her on stage during that faraway May Commencement, President Davis summed up Wu Yi-fang’s work by saying: “ A representative of China on many occasions, both in this country, in Canada, in India, and in England, she is widely known for her work with the Generalissimo and Madame Chiang Kai-shek in the development of the New Life Movement and in the national organization of Chinese Women for War Relief, and as one of the five presidents of the People’s Political Council.” [xii]It would have been pointless to mention that her appearance at Smith’s Commencement was merely a side trip from her duties as member of a delegation sent to Washington by the Chinese government to “study the international situation and problems relating to postwar reconstruction.” [xiii] It was too early to know that two years later she would become one of only four women to sign the U.N. Charter, or that she would be one of the rare public figures to hold the government’s respect before, during and after the Cultural Revolution as vice president of Nanking Normal University, director of the Bureau of Education for Jiangsu Province, first female vice chair of the Jiangsu provincial government, and vice president of the All-China Women’s Federation.[xiv]
As a teenager, the bankruptcy and resulting suicides of Wu Yi-fang’s father and older brother left her family in tatters, and an uncle in Hangzhou supported her schooling while she worked side jobs to support her sister and grandmother.[xv]Her education and early career at Ginling allowed her to lift herself out of this adversity. Ginling, fledgling as it was during her time there, was a post-secondary option of a kind that did not exist for women in China before 1915, and it carried the added international credibility that a western-style education provided at that time. Wu Yi-fang may still have made something of herself without the education that Ginling first afforded, but her higher education inarguably made her brilliant. She was a product of early women’s education, and Smith should be proud of the role it played in the development of her Ginling, and our Smith, and women’s education overall.
Julia Franz ‘13
[i] Smith College Archives. Ginling College Records, 1920-1993. Biographical Note. Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College, Northampton, MA. http://asteria.fivecolleges.edu/findaids/smitharchives/manosca16_bioghist.html (16 Feb 2010).
[ii] Smith College Archives, Biographical Note.
[iii] “Smith Around the World,” 1925, in Ginling College Records (Box III, Folder III), Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College, Northampton, MA.
Smith College Archives, Ginling College Records, 1920-1993. Biographical Note.
[iv] The American Context of China’s Christian Colleges and Schools. Yale Divinity School. 22 Oct 2009. http://www.library.yale.edu/div/colleges/index.html (16 Feb 2010).
Smith College Archives, Ginling College Records, 1920-1993. Biographical Note.
[v] Smith College Archives, Ginling College Records, 1920-1993. Biographical Note.
[vi]The American Context of China’s Christian Colleges and Schools.
[vii] Zhejiang Provincial Archives. Personage’s Scripts In Our Collections: Wu Yi-fang. http://www.zjda.gov.cn/archive/platformData/infoplat/pub/archivese_52/gcmrsj_2408/shouji- WuYifang2.html (18 Feb 2010).
Hamrin, Carol Lee. “Wu Yi-fang.” Biographical Dictionary of Chinese Christianity. 2005-2010.
[viii] The American Context of China’s Christian Colleges and Schools.
[ix] Elizabeth Morrow to Smith alumna, December 1940, , in Ginling College Records (Box I, Folder III), Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College, Northampton, MA: 191+.
[x] Smith College Alumnae Quarterly, 6 October 1950, in Ginling College Records (Box III, Folder I), Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College, Northampton, MA.
[xi] Smith College Archives, Ginling College Records, 1920-1993. Biographical Note.
[xii] Smith College Alumnae Quarterly, August 1943, in Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College, Northampton, MA.
[xiii] “Wu Yi-fang,” May 1943, in Ginling College Records (Box III, Folder VII), Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College, Northampton, MA.
[xiv] Zhejiang Provincial Archives. Personage’s Scripts In Our Collections: Wu Yi-fang.
Hamrin, Carol Lee. “Wu Yi-fang.”
[xv] Hamrin, Carol Lee. “Wu Yi-fang.”